Roderick Cobley writes:
The two speakers, Lois JC and Jonny Jones, came at the subject of anti-politcs from very different angles. Lois concentrated on seeking to define what ‘anti-politics’ was and its implications. She outlined how it manifested as a detachment from politics as perceived by most people, and emerged as a result of one of the consequences of neoliberal ascendancy – the “withering away” of the social bases for most political parties, and in particular those seeking to traditionally represent the working class.
Noting that such parties never really represented our interests, but always sought to co-opt and tame workers’ resistance, she described how the convergence of parties left and right in fully accepting neoliberal policies, had ‘hollowed out’ democracy to the extent that most people no longer saw any way in which mainstream parties represented them. She noted that this was in some ways an opportunity for us, but also a danger, as people can react by veering either left – as with the indignados in Spain – or right as with UKIP in the UK or Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy.
Jonny, on the other hand, concentrated more on developments in social movements over the last ten to fifteen years and what can be learnt from them. He warned that a common attitude on the left, to be disappointed at the low level of struggle compared to previous periods of crisis, was misplaced as it did not take into account the huge defeats in the intervening years. Instead, it was important to note that the levels of activity were much greater than at the start of the century. At that time movements tended to have an international focus and coalesce around events aimed at global institutions and called by various international co-ordinating bodies. Now resistance is instead mainly nationally based and governed by the need to fight austerity.
He described the impact of the idea of occupying the squares, how it had spread from country to country, inspiring people who then adapted the idea to local conditions. This included this country, which in 2011 saw both Occupy London and a one day public sector strike, unprecedented in modern times. He added that a key mistake made in the past – and in particular by those around Unite the Resistance – was not building at the base in the workers’ movement out of these struggles at the time. As a result, when the union leaders called off further action no cadres of rooted activists was in existence that could have kept a viable level of struggle going after the high point.
Discussion after the speakers was wide-ranging. One of the key points was the focus of existing movements on ways of organising that avoided anything smacking of structure or leadership. It was noted, by Jonny Jones and others, that this meant that no strategy could be developed and tested, nor could movements counteract the inevitable tendency to disperse as people start to tire and return to life and work. Some other speakers went further, describing the opposition to leadership as dangerous and anti-democratic, with unaccountable self-appointed leaderships making decisions “in another room” and bringing fait accomplis to the rest of the movement.
It was emphasised a number of times that “anti-politics” does not amount to apathy. One speaker, a teacher, told of students aged around 14 who believed in conspiracy theories about 9-11. This would not be the case if young people like them were apathetic. It was also noted that “anti-politics” is a result in part not only of the atomisation of life under neoliberalism, leading to people becoming less inclined to organise and fight, but also an internalisation of the idea, common over the last two decades, that we live in a “post-ideological” world where battles between political alternatives is consigned to history.
There was some disagreement over whether the term or even the concept of “neoliberalism” was useful. One speaker from Spain, described it as “dangerous” and liable to spread political confusion among the left and more widely. However, another speaker disagreed and argued that that the concept accurately described the dynamics of movements in places where neoliberal ideology had a hegemony and people were responded by refusing to subscribe to political concepts such as “left” and “right”. He added that anti-politics should be seen as a rejection of all pre-existing political forms and not just establishment ones – and that included us. Jonny Jones noted that this must reflect in part the fact that the far left has not been a glorious success so far! En Lucha’s experience of being able to win over the indignados was described, however, and this showed that revolutionaries have a capacity to win over those who have an anti-politics mood, with a strongly anti-system message.